Performance reviews for local government executives

The process of evaluating a manager’s performance is fraught with potential risks, but a facilitated process can result in better results for everyone involved.

ARTICLE | Jun 13, 2019
by Jerry Newfarmer, President and CEO, Management Partners

All employees deserve to know what their supervisors think of their job performance, and an honest evaluation can identify useful feedback and set employees on a more productive course.

But when the employee is a city or county manager and the supervisors are elected officials, the process of a performance evaluation is fraught with potential difficulties. It can become derailed by political considerations or hijacked by one or two elected officials; or it can be delayed again and again, while the manager continues to work without the benefit of constructive dialogue and discussion.

Enrolling a facilitator to manage the evaluation process is one way to sidestep many of the obstacles associated with the process. Facilitated evaluations are a particularly good idea if past feedback has not been helpful or specific; there are significant differences among members of the governing body; you are looking for consensus to emerge from the evaluation; members of the governing body resist doing an evaluation; or you want to make sure the evaluation is completed in a timely manner.

A good facilitator will be adept at interviewing officials, facilitating governing body discussions, keeping the conversation balanced, and moving toward consensus. A background in local government, particularly as a chief executive, is a bonus for facilitators as they will understand the unique context and characteristics of these roles.

In many cases, the facilitator meets with the manager and council members individually, eliciting ideas and feedback on issues facing the local government, relationships, and the manager’s strengths and areas for improvement. The facilitator then meets with the city council or county board in an executive session for discussion as a body, after which the manager joins the meeting to hear feedback and respond to it.

In a typical case, the facilitator guides the group toward a list of action statements, an overall summary evaluation and a report from the facilitator, along with any proposed compensation increase. A follow-up report is often scheduled for six months later to update the council on the goals and action items agreed to during the review.  In some cases, the chief executive is included in the entire executive session in order to fully understand the differing and similar points of view and to be part of the entire discussion. 

Of course every situation is different, and the process must be tailored to the unique circumstances of the local government. If evaluations are public record, participants may wish to present findings verbally rather than in a written report. In closed sessions, it may be necessary beforehand to set ground rules regarding the use of social media. But a skilled facilitator will work with participants to devise a process that works for everyone.

A facilitated process can be helpful for both the chief executive and the governing body. It can provide a chance to solve problems before they grow; an opportunity to recognize and celebrate accomplishments; dedicated time to think about the working relationship and consider feedback that goes beyond everyday interactions; the development of an action plan with specific proposals; and the ability to communicate honestly without becoming personal or defensive.

A facilitated performance evaluation may be especially useful if:

  • Feedback in prior reviews has not been sufficiently specific or helpful.
  • Differences among elected officials prevent conversation about this important process without help.
  • The governing body struggles to reach consensus about the manager's performance.
  • The governing body resists doing an evaluation.

For the chief executive, benefits include a timely and well-managed process; specific, useful feedback; a consensus view of the chief executive’s performance and clarity about the majority’s desires regarding future performance and priorities; and an opportunity to discuss compensation or contract changes in a constructive manner.

Elected officials and governing board members gain many benefits as well: the process consumes less time and effort; all governing body members have their say but one or two members do not dominate the conversation; the dialogue is less politicized and more focused on objective criteria; and the governing body achieves a consensus about a few priorities moving forward and the desired role of the chief executive in achieving those priorities.

For chief executives interested in the idea of facilitated performance evaluations, there are several ways to raise the topic with a governing body:

  • Include the practice as a provision in their employment agreement.
  • Identify governing bodies in their region that have used facilitated evaluations and present a report on it to their elected officials.
  • Raise the idea after a regular performance review. Include a debrief with the Board or relevant committee that looks at what went well, what was difficult, and whether a facilitated evaluation would improve the process.

The benefits of a facilitated performance evaluation for the manager include:

  • A timely and well-managed process.
  • Specific, useful feedback.
  • Consensus view of the manager's performance and clarity about the majority’s desires regarding future performance and priorities.
  • An opportunity to discuss compensation or contract changes in a constructive manner.

For elected officials, the benefits of a facilitated process include:

  • A process that requires less time and effort.
  • An equal footing for members of the governing body, instead of having one or two members dominate the conversation.
  • A dialogue that is less politicized and more focused on objective criteria.
  • The opportunity for the governing body to achieve a consensus about a few priorities moving forward and the desired role of the manager in achieving those priorities.

Every employee deserves to know what supervisors think of his or her performance, and everyone involved in the evaluation benefits from a process that is well-organized, helpful, specific and timely. For the unique circumstances of chief executives in local governments, a facilitated evaluation process can eliminate many potential obstacles to a constructive review, ensuring that all involved are working toward the goal of continuous improvement.  An outside facilitator can be an additional tool in the chief executive’s toolbox to discern what his or her governing body members really think.

 

Management Partners is a professional management consulting firm specializing in helping government leaders improve their operations, identifying problems and best practices that reveal ways to increase organizational effectiveness. Visit www.managementpartners.com for more information.

You may also be interested in

Feedback